by Whet Moser
The great sleight-of-hand artist, historian of magic and vaudeville, actor, and raconteur Ricky Jay kicks off a six-night stand of his new show, Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery—An Evening of Conversation and Performance tonight at the Royal George Theatre Centre. Directed by friend and longtime collaborator David Mamet, it's something of a departure from previous shows - audience members will guide the direction of the show by selecting from a gallery of Jay's interests and obsessions.
I had the opportunity to discuss the show with Jay, who also touched on Chicago's legendary restaurant and bar magic scene, and Ward Hall, the last of the great vaudeville impresarios.
The new show sounds a little like a multimedia Jay's Journal of Anomalies. How did you develop it?
Maybe on some level that is true. I had some new material I was thinking about and ways of presenting it, and I was offered an opportunity to play a theater which didn't accomodate earlier stuff I'd done... a combination of things led me in that direction, using these images, and some technology, and film, and it just started taking me in different areas. And then what became perhaps most appealing was that a much higher percentage of the show was subject to improvisation than anything I've done.
You know how that often happens - all these ingredients fall into a stew, and it starts to simmer, and you find it appealing. It wasn't like I sat down one day and just thought of this, or David did... it just evolved.
You're really introducing a level of randomness to the show.
Absolutely. There was always the element of randomness by having someone participate in a magic effect because you never knew how they would react. In this case, it goes further than that, where they're actually suggesting things that are spoken about during the show. That's a remarkable departure, and I don't know if there's anyone in my field who's done that.
It does sound a bit like the people who did improvised mind tricks - people with photographic memories - that you write about in Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women.
I can't say that was a significant factor in terms of shaping it, but that is something that appeals to me enormously. And I don't, by the way, have a photographic memory, even though I'm coming to this with more than a hundred possible stories to spring from.
In your travels or your readings, have you come across any Chicago magicians who've interested you?
I have a pretty serious association with Chicago, because my wife is from Chicago, and David is of course from Chicago, and I go there frequently. When I started going, there was a wonderful fellow named Jay Marshall who had a great magic shop on North and Lincoln called Magic, Inc. He was on the Ed Sullivan show many times, and he was a walking encyclopedia of magic; I used to come to town all the time to visit him.
And when I was a kid coming to town, when I was 17 and 18 years old, Chicago had the greatest magical bar scene in the country. It was quite common to find really talented magicians behind bars in Chicago, and some of them were even great - like Matt Schulien, who had his own restaurant, Schulien's.
There were quite a number of really colorful characters, like Heba Haba Al, a really wonderful sleight-of-hand worker. Chicago's always been a leading city in the development of sleight-of-hand.
Heba Haba Al?
He was a great Chicago bar magician, who's since passed on.
I was thinking about the Chicago bar magic scene, and the New York street magic scene, and I'm not sure whether it's just my impression, but that seems to be going away.
I have to say no, there's an enormous interest in magic, but it's different; it's changed. It's changed just like it's changed for all of us with this enormous information boom. There are more and more people doing magic. I never think the percentage of people doing great magic is higher, but there's certainly continued interest.
The gathering places in New York and Chicago and LA I think probably still exist. You often get key figures - for instance, in Chicago the two key figures were Jay Marshall, who was this remarkable all-around performer, and a wonderful card magician named Ed Marlo, who had all these acolytes and disciples, and they would all meet around him; and eventually all these people pass away.
I don't believe that stopped - there are magic conventions, and conferences, and places where these people hang out. It's just probably reshaped from those kinds of stories from New York when I was a kid, or later on in Chicago, and eventually moving to LA.
Even if people are still doing sleight-of-hand, one thing that does seem to have gone away is carnival and vaudeville culture, which doesn't seem to be practiced in the United States anymore.
Certainly I would say less, but it hasn't gone away. Just last week I got to hear Ward Hall speak, who's 92, or in his late 80s, who's probably the last great carnival impresario who's still actively taking shows out, who Jay Marshall introduced me to years before [see video below].
I think you just have to look for these things; you're right in the sense that it's not as easy to see them, and that's a shame, as far as I'm concerned.
I read your op-ed from the New York Times about Susan Boyle, and it seemed like what you were getting at really had to do with the immediate accessibility and overload of this sort of phenomenon might actually burn out our sense of wonder. When these cycles of fascination go so quickly, how can an audience maintain a sense of wonder?
It's one of the reasons I think there's such value in live theater. I think part of it is making an attempt to do it, rather than just having something that's just so accessible and gimmicky... it makes it more important.
You have to put yourself in a position to have an experience like that. Chicago's just such a wonderful theater town, and always has been, where people really like the live experience, and that's encouraging.
To further entice you, some videos:
Ricky Jay does cup and ball tricks, while discussing the history of cup and ball tricks:
Ricky Jay throws a freaking playing card through a freaking watermelon (see also the difficult-to-find Cards As Weapons):
Jay blows Arsenio's mind in a media appearance for Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women
Ricky Jay on Mythbusters, a meeting of giants:
More Ward Hall, on Roy Huston: